Non-Violent Extremism

I am reading a fine book called This Is An Uprising: How Non-violent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century, by Mark Engler and Paul Engler. Mark Engler will speak in Flagstaff next week. Reading the book reminded me of a Facebook Note that I had written on Martin Luther King Day in 2011 — before I was using this blog. Here’s what I said then:

“When one lives through history, perhaps you tend to be less curious about it. Or I least I have been. Also, there really isn’t historical perspective for at least some decades after events. At least in the first 20 years or so, I’d class whatever we say about current events as political commentary.We’ve now reached the point where there is some good historical perspective on Martin Luther King.

In recent years, there have probably been several good books about Martin Luther King’s life. The one that most grabbed me was: To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sacred Mission to Save America 1955-1968. The book reveals that King’s inspiration for embracing the “extremism” label his critics had given him was a woman, Lillian Smith, who bemoaned moderation as “the slogan of our times,” and a dangerous myth that was no longer affordable in the conditions of fifty years ago. (Mountaintop, p. 183.)  I think that is true again, where the slogan of our times has become “civil discourse.” Civility by those who are right cannot prevent injustice and immorality by those who are wrong. Non-violent extremism must be embraced to save our country.”

At the time, in 2011, I was thinking primarily of the drive for equal marriage rights. That battle seems to have been won. Nonetheless, the thoughts apply today. This Is An Uprising quotes briefly from Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. This letter, one of his most inspiring pieces, was  written in 1963 in response to local ministers, so-called liberals who complained his appearance in their community was “unwise and untimely.” Here’s some of what King wrote:

“I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms….I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here. …But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise….

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”….. Then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

“I must make two honest confessions to you….First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

“…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured….

“….We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label….So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

You can read King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, in its entirety here: http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html

Author: Ann Heitland

Ann Heitland is a writer, living in Flagstaff, AZ. She's also a golfer, ex-lawyer, retired real estate broker, and active Democrat.

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